YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


John Atherton, 85; Poet, Professor, Founding President of Pitzer College


John W. Atherton, who launched Pitzer College, the newest and perhaps most innovative of the Claremont Colleges, as its founding president from 1963 to 1970, has died. He was 85.

Atherton, who spent most of his academic career teaching English, died Tuesday in Claremont, university officials announced.

A poet and specialist in Victorian literature, Atherton joined the Claremont Men's College (now Claremont McKenna) faculty in 1949, and was its dean of faculty when he was tapped to develop the new Pitzer College for women opening in 1963.

Under Atherton's tenure, Pitzer constructed its physical campus and grew from an initial 150 students to 650 and from 13 faculty members to 50. Atherton in 1969 also helped defuse a potentially disruptive situation by negotiating with other Claremont administrators and the Black Students Union to create an autonomous Black Studies Center.

Years later, Atherton recalled the school's meager beginnings for The Times, emphasizing: "There was nothing. We had the site of the old village dump with nothing on it but rocks and sagebrush."

The institution, named for principal donors Mr. and Mrs. Russell K. Pitzer, pioneered a free-form curriculum with students designing their own majors focusing on social and behavioral sciences combined with social responsibility and community involvement.

"Pitzer College owes a great deal to Dr. Atherton's leadership and vision, demonstrated not only in his presidency but also in his invaluable support in subsequent years," said Marilyn Chapin Massey, the college's current president.

In announcing his resignation to return to teaching, Atherton said he had completed the new college's start-up phase and felt it was time for "fresh leadership to take over for the next phase of development."

"Pitzer developed faster than I thought it would," Atherton told The Times then. "The student body and faculty are there, and I have the feeling that this is the most important time for a change of leadership."

The man who left a men's college to start the women's college predicted it would become coed shortly after he left. He was right: Pitzer added male students in the fall of 1970.

Atherton moved to Brockport, N.Y., to teach and to chair the English Department of the State University of New York campus there. During his 15 years at Brockport, he also served as dean of humanities and dean of liberal studies. He lectured internationally at the University of Malta, Loughborough University in England and Ain Shams University in Cairo.

His poems and short stories were published in several anthologies and in such magazines as the Saturday Review, The New Yorker and Yale Review.

Atherton earned his bachelor's degree in English from Amherst College and master's and doctoral degrees in literature from the University of Chicago.

He began his academic career at Iowa State College in Ames, but interrupted it to serve as a Navy torpedo and gunnery officer during World War II. Active in the Naval Reserve for many years, he studied Russian in the Navy School of Oriental Languages at Boulder, Colo.

In 1955-56, he was a Fulbright lecturer at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. During that academic year, he developed an interest in Oriental art, which influenced his own avocational painting. Atherton's interest in art was a factor in his 1968 appointment to the board of governors of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Atherton, who returned to Claremont when he retired in 1985, was asked to address the Pitzer College 25th commencement ceremonies in 1989.

He is survived by his wife, Virginia Richards Atherton; and three children, John Jr., Thomas and Carolyn.

Los Angeles Times Articles